Discovering that you will be having romantic play in your larp, is something that almost always causes a certain reaction amongst larpers. One of panic, stress, worry, joy, relief, or anything else not mentioned here. It is clear that having romance in your character and relations is something that can be very impactful for your entire larp. So, how do we take this romantic play and feel safe to run with it? How do we turn something that so often is frightening for a lot of players into something that establishes and deepens a character? How do we create an engaging story about emotions that enriches play for all parties involved, without it having to go further than that? How do we play on romance without it becoming play on sexuality? How do we bring the magic into our romantic play in a larp?
Creating a safe framework
Having the right safe space is an essential component to romantic play. It allows you as well as your co-player(s) to dive deep into your romantic relationship, regardless of whether it’s a prewritten one or one that you have created yourself. Especially as romance play tends to often go deeper and become more emotional than a lot of other relations in a larp, it is key to make sure that everyone involved feels that it’s safe enough to jump into this play and trust each other to build a beautiful story.
Discuss your boundaries before the larp
Having a discussion on boundaries before the larp will help in creating a safer environment for everyone involved in a prewritten or pre-negotiated romance. Make sure this talk isn’t just about physical boundaries, but also about emotional and narrative ones. It’s important not to stay overly superficial or get stuck in generalisations; it pays off to go into specifics. This doesn’t just provide a wider area to play in once you rule out the specifics, but also gives you a sense of security, because you have trusted each other with these specifics. If, e.g., you don’t like being tickled on your right thigh, or hate your nose being touched because of insecurities, this is the moment to mention it. If there are any emotions you do not like to play on, like grief, if there are any stories you prefer not to tell, or if you have any important triggers that might come out during play, these are also worth mentioning to someone you will be sharing intense and deep play with. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable towards each other, and don’t be judgemental about each other’s boundaries. Creating a safe space starts here, by creating a safe and trusting atmosphere in which to discuss your boundaries together.
Manage everyone’s expectations
Along with a talk about your boundaries, it is equally important to also discuss expectations, and to manage them. There are as many expectations from a larp as there are participants in it, and it is important to make sure your expectations aren’t completely opposite to those of your co-player(s) for your romantic play when you step into the game. Before starting up this conversation, remind yourself that you will probably have different expectations, and that it will mainly be a question of communicating and getting your expectations aligned with each other, so that you can flow from there.
You can start up this conversation by stating the type of (romantic) play you like and dislike, and what you are or are not willing to play on. Also think about your preferred directions for the story and state them, but be open for the story to go differently, or for your co-player(s) to have completely different ideas or intentions. This is also a good moment to discuss potential conflicts for your romantic relationship. You can talk about whether or not and how much of it you would like. Additionally, you can also come up with some potential sources of conflict beforehand, which makes it easier to play them up during the larp. Furthermore, make sure to be clear on how much or how little play you would like to get out of your romance. And, above all: be flexible in your expectations, and if needed, make it clear to your co-player(s) that they should be, too. In case you notice that your expectations and those of your co-player(s) are very far apart, don’t hesitate to start up the conversation on how to bring them closer to each other. It’s better to do this before the larp than to be disappointed during play.
Be open for calibration during play
We all know larp is unpredictable, and so is your romantic relation in it. Which is why it’s better not to stick to one outcome, but to be ready for whatever is thrown in your direction instead. This also means it’s good to be ready to check up off-game with your co-player(s) whenever things seem to be going in a very different direction than originally planned or expected. If, for example, you feel like you are not getting a lot of play from your romantic relationship, or not the type of play you had expected, it is worth it to have a quick calibration about this situation. Your co-player(s) may have been unaware, or they may have been stuck with the same issue as well. However, always keep in mind that your co-player(s) can say no to your requests, as you can to theirs. In the end, a short calibration in case of play going into a direction that you would like to see differently will at least help you to know what to do next or what to expect, instead of possibly heading towards disappointment.
Similarly, boundaries may change during a larp, too. This can happen for many reasons, which you do not need to state to your co-player(s). However, do inform them about these changes if this is important for the situation or for possible future situations you may find yourself in. For example, if you have become more comfortable with your co-player and you do not mind them kissing you on the forehead while this would have crossed a boundary before, do not hesitate to quickly tell them about this off-game.
Furthermore, romantic play can at times happen spontaneously during a larp, without it having been preplanned or prewritten. For these spontaneous romances, it is equally important to be open for calibration, if you want to allow for this kind of play to flow. Look for a moment to go off-game and discuss boundaries if you feel the need for it, and make it clear to your co-player(s) that you are open for them to communicate their boundaries to you as well. Even with people who know each other well, it is important to make it clear that the door is always open for this conversation, so that you are sure to create that space of safety and trust despite not having had any negotiations before the larp. Lastly, if you feel the direction you want to take the story in is unclear, or you’re all steering in different directions, make sure to calibrate together, so that this spontaneous story doesn’t fall through or burn up halfway through the larp – unless this is exactly what you want to happen.
Check up on each other after the larp
After the larp ends, it is also important to end your story together and to manage your bleed together. Find a moment when you and your co-player(s) feel alright to talk through the larp and the story together. This can be right after an event, or a week after. Just make sure you find a moment you agree on. During this conversation, take care to give each other compliments and positive feedback: state what elements you liked that the other(s) brought to your story, what you think they did amazingly, which moments you particularly enjoyed, etc. Then, carry on to differentiate yourself from your character. Ask each other about differences and similarities between the player(s) and the character(s). Be there for each other and be supportive for each other. Remain open to talk about bleed to each other, as you may have different moments or different ways of experiencing it. Also embrace the idea that it is equally fine if there is no bleed at all. And last but not least: do not become stuck in going through and drawing each other into bleed over and over again. Keep an eye open for warning signs, such as: starting a conversation over and over again about specific in-character memories; continuing to send each other messages/files/… that remind you of your character’s emotions or their story together; steering conversations to be about the larp more often than not; ending up in a long lasting, time absorbing post play; etc. When you notice warning signs for lasting bleed, take care to take breaks, to do things that distract you from the bleed. Talk about it to your co-player and be honest about the lingering bleed, but also consider taking distance if they are facing the same issue. Working through bleed together is ok, but make sure you also end your story together and move on from there. Keeping your memories and talking about them is a good thing, but clinging to them and to the emotions involved can become problematic.
Making the romance part of your entire story
Just like other relationship dynamics can influence your character and be part of their story, you can allow your romance to shape your character, without necessarily having your entire story and play become exclusively about the romance. This means that you can make the romance meaningful while also making sure your character is still interesting enough without the romance. A romance can be impactful to your character’s story without being their only story: it can be a character’s biggest internal motivator, their largest driver for change, their biggest setback, etc. Romantic play can influence a character, it can push and pull their narrative in a lot of ways, and you can even pace a romantic story along with the rest of your narrative to create a whole. If you manage to find a middle ground between being too dependent or too independent of your romantic story, it can become a beautiful and meaningful part of your story in its entirety.
Having your romantic play and your other relations interact
A first step for making sure your larp romance isn’t just a loose part of your character’s story is having your romantic interest(s) interact with your character’s other relationships. This can happen both directly and indirectly.
Direct interactions are the interactions that take place directly between two characters, without a middle man. A very straightforward example of this is an actual spoken conversation between two characters, but it can also be an exchange of letters or notes, a brief exchange of glances, etc. The most straightforward way to establish this is by introducing your romantic co-player(s) to your other relationships. Any excuse can serve to this end, and you can even go as far as to literally introduce them as the person(s) you fancy. There are obviously less straightforward ways to establish this as well: your character can ask their best friend or servant to deliver a note to their romantic interest, you can suggest to your sibling to ask your romantic interest for advice in a certain matter, etc. The idea here is that you get your romantic interest(s) to interact directly with other characters that hold a relationship to your character and story.
Lastly, you can also establish indirect interactions between your romantic connection and your other relationships, which can obviously turn into direct ones over the course of the larp. With indirect interactions, I refer to interactions where the characters interact and know about each other without talking to each other directly. This is, for example, established by having characters gossip about each other, by having your character confide in their relationships about their romantic feelings, by having them complain, ask for help, or anything else you come up with. Similarly, your character can also talk to their romantic interest(s) about their other relationships, about their friends, their enemies, and their family, and state their opinion about them to their romantic partner(s). This way, you establish a good basis for these characters to look out for each other, or to just talk about each other and establish a certain relationship in this way.
Be open to possible consequences of all of these interactions catching up with your character in the course of the game, and be ready to interact with those as well. It often works well to have different types of direct and indirect interactions going on, as these can all help shape your romantic story.
Pacing a romance along with your character story arc
Tying into the above, next to having your different relations interact with your larp romance, you can also have your romance interact with your character story arc, and vice versa. In essence, pacing your romance and the rest of your story together is a case of allowing them to affect and bleed into each other.
Whenever a part of your general story affects your character and accelerates or slows down your story, or moves it in a new direction, this change of pace can equally be reflected in your romantic story. Use that momentum to create a similar change in your romantic relationship – either internalised or externalised. If your character is, for example, rapidly becoming more independent because of certain events in the game, have them rethink their dependence on or independence of their romantic relationship as well, and show it in their behaviour, or bring it up in conversation, or simply use it as an internal motivator. What matters is that a change in your story arc also affects your romantic story. Changes in pace have a bigger impact if they cause ripples in other stories your character is living through as well, and having these changes influence your romantic play often makes the relationship more realistic as well as more meaningful.
In the same way, impactful changes in your character’s romantic relationship(s) can equally influence the pacing of the rest of their arc. For example, if your romantic interest is slowly changing your character’s opinion on certain matters, take these subtle changes of opinion and reflect them in conversations or opinions you share with other relationships. Act upon the changes your romantic relationship(s) install in your character, and allow them to flow slowly and subtly, instead of having a sudden change of heart from one extreme to the other with no in between. A gradual change in worldview paced along with a gradual evolution in a romantic relationship is a beautiful example of how the whole of a story can be paced and have an impact. Having changes of rhythm in your romantic story affect your other stories, and then having the consequences of these changes in their turn impact your romantic relationship, makes for a better paced whole.
Keeping the romance small yet impactful
A misconception I often find is that in order for a romantic relationship to matter, it needs to be big and visible. I would argue for exactly the contrary. In order for your romance to be impactful, it often works better if it’s small. As so often in larp, it isn’t the big gestures, the big declarations or speeches that leave an impact. It’s the small gestures, the hidden conversations and the stolen moments that affect your character’s world.
As building small, meaningful moments together makes for a more realistic romantic relationship than only having a few grand gestures as shared memories, it is worth looking for them in your larp. You can achieve this in a lot of ways, going from a quick exchange of glances or a slight touch every time you and your romantic interest(s) encounter each other, to actively seeking them out whenever you need a short conversation with them about what’s happening to your character, and asking for their advice. Actively create small moments of togetherness: have your characters check up on each other every so often, share little jokes, send each other small notes, be supportive of each other in moments shared with a group, go and have a drink together and talk about random things … Find small shared interactions that work in your romantic relationship and play on them, repeatedly if you like. Creating small, tender, genuine moments will make your romantic relationship feel a lot more real than only relying on big gestures and declarations of love.
Keeping an open story and an open romance
As with any other larp story or relationship, keeping your romantic play open makes for a more versatile and often more interesting experience. If you want to be able to weave your romantic story into your overall story, both need to be flexible and open enough to be influenced by each other. It does not serve your play to stick rigidly to a desired outcome, and even less so when it no longer makes sense in the given reality of your story. If you are open to not sticking to one fixed goal or storyline, you allow for your different stories and relationships to influence each other even more, thus resulting in a more coherent whole that shapes all of your character. Being open for all the elements in your story, both the expected and the unexpected ones, to influence and shape your character and their story will more likely result in a wholesome and realistic narrative arc for your character to go through.
Having romantic play without it becoming play on sexuality
Romantic play becomes powerful by being small and intimate, and hence, it can be so much more meaningful and rewarding to play exactly on these romantic feelings and this (physical and/or emotional) intimacy for the entirety of your larp. Intimacy comes in many forms and can thus also be achieved in many ways through play, none of which need involve play on sexuality or even physicality. On the contrary, an actual romantic relationship isn’t necessarily shaped by its sexuality, so a romantic relationship in a larp shouldn’t be, either.
Setting boundaries and discussing intimacy
As I’ve argued before, discussing your boundaries with your romantic co-player(s) is an important part of making romantic play work in a larp, as it helps create that vital safe space for us as players to jump into. As a part of this discussion, setting boundaries for not having sexual play with your co-player is equally important. Dare to state this boundary, and be accepting if you ever have a co-player stating this boundary.
When stating this hard limit for sexuality, make it clear that while you are less or not interested in sexual play, you are more so in intimate play. It’s important to make it clear to your co-player that a hard boundary on play on sexuality does not mean there can be no interesting play on the relationship, but rather the contrary. Make it clear that instead of sexual play, you want to play on a romance in which the feelings and/or the small gestures themselves become the focal point.
When shifting your focus from sexuality to intimacy, you should also be ready to discuss what kind of intimate play you desire most. Think about whether you are open for play on intimate physicality, like eg. holding hands, accidental touches, gently brushing each other’s face… or whether you would rather only play on emotional intimacy, e.g. having deep conversations, supporting each other, seeking each other out for advice, having a lot of small one on one talks… Any option or anything in between can create a lot of play and closeness, so don’t be afraid to discuss it and go into detail if needed.
When you trust each other in stating these boundaries, a whole range of other interactions opens up. With the hard limit of no play on sexuality, you can explore which types of intimacy you would like to play on together.
Being open for different types of love and relationships
When talking about romantic play in larp, we often assume this is centred around a certain normative type of romantic attraction and interaction. However, there are many different kinds of love and attraction, so it’s important to also be open to discuss and play on this variety of possible relationships.
It is worthwhile starting this conversation when negotiating your romantic relationship, either before play or during. If you have a desire to play out your relationship more as a platonic love relationship, or if you would like for your character to be asexual and/or aromantic, state this to your coplayer. Be open for other players to inform you about their preferences as well. If during this talk, any clarification is needed – ranging from “what is ace?” to “how would you like us to express our platonic love in a non-physical way?” – be open and willing to ask as well as to offer an explanation. Additionally, normalise these different types of love and relationships, both in your negotiations about them as well as in your play during the larp. Be accepting when a co-player asks not to play on certain types of attraction, or if they suggest a non-romantic kind of love relationship, and don’t lose yourself in assumed problems for this type of play, but think of ways it can enrich your larp experience instead. Being in a polyamorous relationship or feeling a deep love for an aromantic character should, for example, not be the main source of conflict in these relationships. Be willing to talk about and jump into different types of romantic play without making this matter the focal point of your conversation or your play together.
Reinforcing the importance of the relationship
If you make every interaction count, I am also convinced there is less need for play on sexuality. If you treat a romantic relationship less like a romance bound for sexuality and more like a meaningful, character shaping relationship, then every moment has an impact. By keeping it small, you also allow for everything to be meaningful and impactful. A small conversation, a short glance, a desire to help them out,… all of this can motivate your character to do things, to evolve, to take actions outside of the romantic relationship that then again reflect back into the relationship.
A lot of play can happen on an evolving relationship, on words and gestures, on interpretations, on characters growing closer or apart, on characters changing and their dynamics changing along with them, but also on physical intimacy – a touch, a glance, a gentle stroke of the cheek, a smile… As I discussed before, you can create very intimate and important moments with very little. Create moments where you give all your attention to your romantic interest. Have stolen moments, hidden conversations no one else noticed or knows about, ask them for their opinion often and follow their advice (or not), granting each other influence on your stories. Always save some extra kindness, some extra time, a brief glance, a short moment of attention (e.g. asking them specifically for their opinion when talking with a group…) for your romantic interest. Show them they are special and meaningful in the small, unnoticed (by others) moments. Be aware that this kind of play between just the two of you creates a wonderful and deep level of intimacy, and embrace that.
Relationships can become a lot deeper and more important if you dive into the mindset that your characters can inspire each other, that their presence and interactions can influence and forward each others’ stories. A romantic story isn’t necessarily only about one character meeting another and them falling head over heels in love. It can be a story about unwavering support for each other, about being an inspiration for each other to change, to realise their own strength, etc. It takes away from a relationship to only focus on the aspect of romantic attraction when it can be about so much more. Be open to give each other leverage and impact in your stories, and be ready to build a fuller and richer story from there.
Postponing the words “I love you”
It is, however, also perfectly fine to have (part of) your story revolve around the romance. If you choose to go for this type of play, there is a lot to gain from building an arc of evolving towards each other in conversation, not immediately admitting your feelings but showing them in small actions, to then eventually evolve to some (sometimes reluctant) confessions, or finally daring to give in to feelings towards the end of a game, with a simple holding of each other’s hand, an intimate hug, or stating “I love you”. It is worth having a think about the different possible positive or negative resolutions of your romantic relationship, but even more so, it is worth postponing getting to that resolution and focusing on the way you get there. There is more play in getting to that final stage of knowing where the romantic relationship is at, than there is in already reaching that point early on in the event – unless you then play on conflict or a change of the status quo.
At first glance, this seems to be a course of action that mainly works well for new and/or young romances. However, I would like to put forward that this type of play on postponing confessions works for any type of romantic play. You can have an established romantic relationship drift on the same longing for a confession, on the same unspoken (positive or negative) feelings. Your character can, for example, find it problematic that their partner never states their love for them, and have your entire play together evolve around their pushing and longing for those words, or around their wanting to leave for a lack of them. The evolution of the story doesn’t necessarily have to be towards each other, it can also be away from each other, striving for postponing the words “I don’t love you (anymore).” Whichever the case, and whichever the romantic relationship(s), it’s clear that postponing the resolution and playing on the journey there, and the possible (interpretations of the) feelings involved is another way to steer more for play on the relationship, the feelings and the intimacy, and less on the sexuality.
In this article, I hope to have established a good basis for people to turn to when their larp takes them into romantic play. While my own focus was on emotional safety, on making the romance part of your story, and on non-sexual play, throughout all this it remains clear that communication and openness are two key components for any type of play on romance in larp. I hope this article helps players to realise that play on romance doesn’t need to be scary, or forced, or negative, as long as you step into it with an open mindset, ready to communicate, and willing to see it flow within your story in whichever way works for everyone involved.
Cover photo: Image by truthseeker08 on Pixabay. Photo has been cropped.
This article is published in the companion book Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Bailly, Sandy. “Creating Magical Romance Play.” In Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021.